Sky Stories from the Perseids Meteor Shower

August 14, 2015 — Leave a comment

The conditions for the Perseids shower were excellent this week, a meteorological event unusual for Connecticut’s usually overcast conditions. The moon was in its new phase leaving a darkened sky for viewing. Clear skies for over 48 hours, defied Mark Twain’s sentiment, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

Watching the trails of light trailing the metereroids as they bounced against Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorologic conditions in New England were perfect for …well, watching meteors!

The name Perseids derives in part from the word Perseides (Περσείδες), a direct reference to the Greek mythological hero Perseus who was responsible for slaying the Gorgon Medusa.

The meteoroids (their correct name while still in space) that bear his name appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, a directional aid to viewers in determining which shower they are viewing on a given night.

The meteoroids in the Perseids are fast with speeds around 37 miles per second or 133,000 miles per hour, and  according to NASA, there can be as many as 100 per hour. The largest size of the meteroids are about the size of a pea or marble, with most the size of sand grains. It is only when it hits the ground that a meteoroid is called a meteor.

The Perseids meteoroids are composed from dust and ice from the Swift-Tuttle comet that crosses the Earth’s orbital path every August. Swift-Tuttle’s orbit has been traced back nearly 2,000 years and is now thought to be the same comet that was observed in 188 AD and possibly even as early as 69 BC.

Video from ukmeteorwatch

Stories and Star Mapping

All that technical information was not yet known to those storytellers who provided an explanation to our ancient forebears of what was happening in the night sky every August.  The retelling of the story of Perseus and his rescue of the beautiful princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus would be prompted by the viewing of their constellations Perseus and Andromeda which overlap and share a bright star, Alpha Andromedae.

Claudius Ptolemy  the Greek/Egyptian writer  (AD 90 –c. 168) of Alexandria, was also a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer, who promoted 48 constellations in his 2nd-century Almagest,

He also listed the constellation of Cassiopeia, a star pattern aligned with Andromeda and Perseus, an ultimate hovering bad mother-in-law. Cassiopeia’s constellation would remind storytellers of how Andromeda was set in chains because of this troublesome queen’s vanity.

While the association of these stories with the fixed objects of the sky helped early navigators travel the world, they now help navigators find their way virtually through the universe. Naming the objects in the sky and sharing these names through stories began with imagination, but now aids in the science of mapping.

Some of the constellations may not look like their namesakes: Hydra, Ursa Major, Orion, etc, however, their stories have been shared millions of times for thousands of years. The retelling of these stories connects us to others across the globe who viewed the same night sky to see the Perseids this week as well as to those who saw the Perseids in 69 BCE.

Ancient Western Civilizations explained the Perseids in various ways:

  • Greeks saw them as a commemoration of the god Zeus’s visitation on Danae, the mother of Perseus, in a shower of gold;
  • Romans believed that the meteor shower was the god Inuo-Priapus fertilizing the fields.
  • Eventually, the The Catholic religion coopted the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence“, since 10 August is the date of that saint’s martyrdom.

Contemporary References

While the Perseids themselves did not make an appearance in the PBS drama Downtown Abbey, their backstory did. In an exchange in episode two of the first season, the characters Matthew Crowley and Lady Mary exchange their interpretation of the Perseus/Andromeda love story, foreshadowing their own tumultuous courtship:

Lady Mary:  I’ve been studying the story of Andromeda. Do you know it?
Matthew Crawley:  Why?
Lady Mary:  Her father was King Cepheus whose country was being ravaged by storms. And in the end he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock…
Violet, Dowager Countess:  Really, Mary, we’ll all need our smelling salts in a minute.
Matthew Crawley:  But the sea monster didn’t get her, did he.
Lady Mary:  No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father’s problems, she was rescued.
Matthew Crawley:  By Perseus.
Lady Mary:  That’s right, Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn’t you say?
Matthew Crawley:  That depends. I’d have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.

So, even the stars of post-Edwardians of Downton Abbey knew those famous stories connected to the fixed stars in the heavens.

Such stories from the night sky remind us of how connected we are here to both the present and the past simultaneously. Science may be able to explain and measure the distances between these objects, their size, and their exact location, but the association with story is what makes these objects in the sky so memorable.

Just as memorable as standing out in a field watching the Perseid Shower zipping across the pre-dawn sky on a clear night in Connecticut….and that was an unexpected and amazing story.

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